Where Google+ Goes From Here

Google Plus

Google’s Plus release represents their first legitimate effort at a coherent social experience. Right out of the gate, they’ve got a few things incredibly right: amazing notifications unified throughout all Google products, good integration with Picasa and Android, Circles, Hangouts, data portability, and a feeling like this might be around for some time.

Now they need to focus on what’s necessary to make this a second nature, everyday product for people, like Facebook is now for most people.

Open Registrations/Invitations

If anyone can get scale right, it should be Google. Admittedly, scaling instantly in to the millions is a challenge for even the largest companies, and there’s surely a method to their madness here, but they need to be doing whatever they can to get this thing open to as many people as possible. They’re framing the current experience as a “Field Test”, but it’s difficult to test a social networking product if you can’t get your friends onto it. Early adopters are the type of user who will shift their more reluctant friends to a new system. They’re kneecapping their momentum with their limited invitations.

Figure Out Sparks

By far, the most confusing element of Plus is Sparks. It’s an interesting hodgepodge auto-aggregator of news and blog posts on individual topics (or “eccentric hobbies” as their video goes), but it’s presented in a bit of a sloppy way. Since it’s curated automatically, it’s not terribly great at it, which is a bit disappointing as well. Fortunately, Sparks is a nice-to-have within the Plus experience. Perhaps some integration with Reader would help make Sparks shine.

Make Huddles Amazing (Read: Copy Beluga)

I’ve got basically every single friend I speak with regularly on Beluga now. We use it to plan events, see what’s happening for the evening, and coordinate shared rides and the like. It’s a great tool. We also have fun with it. We share photos and links and such. And we can access it from our desktop if necessary. Huddles don’t currently let you access them from the Plus site itself, only from the mobile app. Since Plus isn’t available in the iPhone App Store yet, I can’t try to convert my friends to Huddles yet. And since Huddles don’t let us share photos or set Huddle photos, I don’t know if I’d want to yet. Location sharing is really useful too, and here Google has a definite leg up: it already shares location on posts… why not on huddle updates? Moreover, why not tie directly in to Latitude? Let me navigate right to a real-time-updating friend if I’m picking them up from someone, right from within our Huddle!

Import Profile Pics from… Somewhere!

Most of my connections/friends on Plus are faceless. Make adding a profile picture a required first step. It’s important to associate faces with names, but moreover, it’s WAY less usable to see a bunch of placeholder graphics throughout the product. Import from Gravatar, or, if you won’t violate TOS (heh), from Facebook directly. Either way, make it required, or constantly nag until it gets done.

Release a Stream Notifier or API

If you want us to engage, we need to know things are happening. Right now, it appears the only way to see new posts is to load up the Plus site or app and look at the Streams. Facebook and Twitter have apps or APIs that allow us to get pinged with updates as they happen. You’ll lose momentum and people will stop coming back to Plus if we can’t see what’s happening without having to call up the site manually every time.

Let Me Cross-Post Content Easily

Since Plus isn’t going to overtake Facebook, Twitter, or Linked In overnight, let me cross-post to those places with a click of a button. Better yet, blow everyone away and make it as easy as choosing a “Circle”. Add the Facebook “Circle” and the post auto-cross-posts there. Add the Twitter “Circle” and the shortened form is available for preview before it ends up there. By keeping up the walled garden, Google may be intentionally discouraging this sort of behavior, but this is what will trigger buy-in immediately and ease the transition. Social networks aren’t necessarily a zero-sum game, but two is likely very close to the limit for most.

What’s Next for Plus

Plus is off to a great start. Better than Buzz or Google Wave could ever hope for. It’s exciting, clean, original, and well-executed, with a lot of great features available right out of the gate, and some really innovative concepts. With a bit of polish and a bit more hand-holding, I think Google can convince people to begin using Plus as part of their daily interaction. But the elements needed to keep us checking in and coming back every day aren’t quite there yet. The notifications are a great start, but they only tell part of the story, keeping me informed only after I’ve already engaged. I need a reminder to check in on Plus and see that my friends are using it, and that’s sorely lacking right now.

Google also needs to integrate single-sign-on/Google Authentication with Plus, the way Facebook Connect can be used to allow people to log in or register on a site. It’s not necessary to have a complete app platform available right out of the gate, but Facebook is definitely on to something with Facebook Connect and it’s an important element for any social networking site to drive engagement.

Hopefully we’ll see swift continued development on Plus. It’s a great product out of the gate, but building the product isn’t the hard part in social networking: that’s left to getting users to buy in and keep coming back for more. Plus solves a lot of the qualms people have with Facebook on the privacy, data portability, account deletion, and sharing side of things, and that’s amazing. But it’s not an instant win, and they’ve got a long way to go. Making Huddles indispensible (and consider integrating them with group gTalk) would help, but I’m hoping they’ve got some other unique features up their sleeves to introduce into the Plus fold. I’m disappointed that the Slide-inside-Google-developed Pool Party and Prizes products weren’t built with Plus in mind. It might be time for the left hand to clue the right hand into what’s going on, and to get everyone on the same page.

Posted in: Cool Stuff

Nexus One Subsidy Hack: Drop Your Data Plan, Get $100

nexus_oneGoogle officially released their Nexus One Android phone today under the guise of a $179 subsidized price tag ($529 unsubsidized and unlocked). As many T-Mobile customers discovered today, that price only applied if you weren’t already a loyal customer. Instead, TMO customers were shafted subsidized based on their contract status and the presence of an existing data plan.

The official Google Support page describes the following subsidy tiers:

  • Nexus One without service: $529
  • Nexus One with new, 2-year T-Mobile US service plan for new customers: $179
  • Nexus One with new, 2-year T-Mobile US service plan for qualifying existing T-Mobile customers who are adding data plans: $279
  • Nexus One with new, 2-year T-Mobile US service plan for qualifying existing T-Mobile customers who are upgrading their data plans: $379

I’ve been a T-Mobile customer for a little over seven years now, and off-contract for pretty much that entire time. I’m thus now open to what T-Mobile calls their full subsidy. Except with the Google phone, where Google manages the subsidy, not T-Mobile. Since I had a $10/month sad, EDGE-based data plan with TMO, Google informed me after polling the TMO servers that I was eligible for the $150 subsidy, for a Nexus One price of $379. The next subsidy tier up is $100 cheaper for a price of $279.

The only distinction lies in whether you are “upgrading your data plan” or “adding a data plan.” This seemed like a simple enough problem to fix: I called T-Mobile support and asked them to cancel my data plan. They said it would be no problem, since I’m not under contract. I worried briefly that it wouldn’t be visible to the Google-based powers that be until the next billing cycle, but the TMO rep informed me that the change is instant. Since I knew I was buying a Nexus either way, I pulled the trigger.

Wouldn’t you know it, not five minutes later when I went to make the purchase again Google’s web store fetched my data and lo and behold, my Nexus price was now just $279. Easy-peasy, that.

The ironic part is that I’m moderately sure I could re-activate the data plan now without incurring any real additional fees in the day-and-a-half I may have to wait for the overnight shipping to get here, but I don’t use the slow EDGE service enough to warrant wrecking my cool here.

After all the dust settled, I realized how asinine Google had decided to make the checkout process by managing sales and subsidies of the device themselves. They limit you to just one rate plan during your purchase, which is more than a little infuriating as I received different answers from TMO reps over whether upping my minutes would cause Google to come after me for the subsidy. (It appears that you CAN upgrade your account to another Even More plan according to a recently-added note on this Google Support page.) The pricing rates are buried under a Support knowledge base article and not at all transparent. Google says $179 and then pulls an enormous J/K on you as they fetch your account information, seemingly pulling a figure out of thin air as it suits them. The T-Mobile reps can’t do anything about it since the purchase isn’t on their side of the pond at all. And Google is nowhere to be found.

Strange to me that a company so intent on delivering a device with their brand and full-throated support would instantly fawn off users to HTC and T-Mobile so that they don’t need to support their customers in any meaningful way. This isn’t the first time Google has proved shockingly absent with matters of support, but it feels very different when you’re purchasing a product subject to additional cancellation fees.

Further, it seems completely short-sighted to limit the subsidy as they have. Restricting the best price to new T-Mobile customers alone is frustrating, but they make it nearly impossible for anyone with a family plan to switch at the subsidized price. Worse, the subsidy at its lower rates really just amortizes the cost of the phone out over those two years, as the Even More plans cost $10/month more—that’s $240 over two years right there. Let’s be clear: At $379, you’re better off financially buying the unlocked phone and using the Even More Plus plan, which costs $10 less, for a total savings of $90 over the two year term. Even better since you’re not under any contract at the $529 rate.

Creating barriers to entry for new customers is always a bad idea, made all the worse when those barriers seem arbitrary and class-based. Google needs to stop with the silly tiers and subsidize the damn phone like they’re usually subsidized through carriers. They should allow purchases under family plans and not take the data plan into account. And they should allow you to select from any of T-Mobile’s Even More tiers, which would save me a phone call with T-Mobile’s (admittedly friendly and typically knowledgeable) support.

[1/18/2010 Edit: It was reported last week that Google is nixing the $379 rate entirely, so existing T-Mobile subscribers of all (out-of-contract) stripes will now qualify for the $279 offer. Early adopters who got hit with the $379 rate will have a refund check sent to them. Good on Google, but it'd be nice if it were $179 for all.]

Posted in: Rants, Tech News

Google Browser Size: Drawn By Five-Year-Olds

Browser SizeGoogle announced a new Labs product called Browser Size. At first I thought this might be a useful tool to complement their recent spate of great developer-oriented releases. Instead, I was assaulted by a hideous overlay that requires a left-aligned design. (Though they’re ostensibly working on that.)

Browser Size allows you to enter any URL  and see an overlay of visible browser space broken up by user demographics. Specifically, you can see what percentage of the Google-using populous would be able to see what portion of your screen on an initial page load. Apparently, this is based on typical browser dimensions for users, and not screen resolutions outright. (Taking into account non-maximized browsers.)

I understand that Labs products are by their nature not fully baked, but this one lands on the other extreme: half-assed. Perhaps the overlay is a rough attempt at being cheeky, but to me, it’s ugly, and its jagged, hand-drawn lines reduce its utility, rather than amping up its “cute” factor. The percentages aren’t even consistently rendered—it’s like My First Photoshop session here.

This isn’t to say that the concept isn’t a good one. I just wish they let this one cook a bit more before releasing it.

Browser Size | Google Labs via TechCrunch

Posted in: Design

Google Speed Tracer Makes AJAX Optimization Easier

SpeedTracer-SluggishnessDetailGoogle today announced Speed Tracer as part of their Google Web Toolkit offerings. While most of the GWT focuses on enabling developers to create web applications in Java (which compiles down to optimized JavaScript), Speed Tracer is a useful profiling tool for any developer wrestling with XMLHttpRequest.

What makes Speed Tracer different?

Developers have long used Firebug to identify what AJAX requests were causing bottlenecks and to analyze responses to those requests. Firebug is an extremely powerful tool and does a serviceable job with this approach, but Speed Tracer takes things one step further, analyzing the “sluggishness” of your application by examining how busy or blocked the UI is in your browser. This can help developers analyze why their application feels slow, instead of simply focusing on network-based bottlenecks.

Speed Tracer makes use of specific, unique APIs built into Webkit for this very purpose, which gives it a unique advantage compared to other profiling tools. Instead of simply guessing and checking, developers will now have full visibility into what’s causing their applications to appear slow:

Using Speed Tracer you are able to get a better picture of where time is being spent in your application. This includes problems caused by JavaScript parsing and execution, layout, CSS style recalculation and selector matching, DOM event handling, network resource loading, timer fires, XMLHttpRequest callbacks, painting, and more.

Very cool stuff. What’s more, it’s free, open source, and available for users of Google Chrome right now. Check out their tutorial below:

Google Speed Tracer

Posted in: Cool Stuff, Development, Tech News

Google vs. Facebook Interface Design: Design by “Committee” vs. Baptism by Fire

Once again, Facebook has released a complete failure of a feature set or upgrade and been hit with such a strong backlash by their users (who, they assure us, are listened to even BEFORE launching such drivel) that they have had to backpedal to appease the masses. Facebook seems to have this bizarre mentality that shaking the etch-a-sketch and slapping the user in the face is a great way to spring new changes, regardless of the thoughts of their users or their preliminary feedback. Beacon, un-restricted Minifeed, new Facebook, new Facebook again, rape-and-pillage privacy policies—you would think someone over there would suggest that they NOT continue to learn these lessons the hard way, as one time of baptism by fire tends to be enough for most people.

With the exception of the penultimate “new Facebook”, they have had to rollback or significantly change tack from their initial position of “this is new and you’re going to like it,” forced  instead to listen to their users, post a mea culpa and attempt to save face with the global press and the blogosphere collectively rolling their eyes at each new foible. TechCrunch has an idiotic post about how when Facebook listens to their users, God kills a kitten for bowing to the masses and “designing by committee”. Robert Scoble backed this up with a misguided treatise about how Zuckerberg is on track to score billions from these changes and how they shouldn’t/wouldn’t start listening to their users. I call bullshit. Read More »

Posted in: Design, Rants

Google’s AJAX-powered Search Results Break Keyword Tracking


Our beloved web analytics tool Clicky blogged about a pretty crucial SEO & analytics issue today: Google is rolling people over to a new AJAX-powered search, that pushes query strings AFTER a hash mark. So: http://www.google.com/search?q=what’s+my+referrer becomes: http://www.google.com/#q=what’s+my+referrer

The problem with this is that browsers don’t send anything after the hash mark (this thing: #) in their referrer string, since they’re used for named anchors. Since analytic tools use the referrer string to parse search keywords, this breaks that functionality for anyone on the “new” Google. Nightmare. It’s as if they’re effectively “commenting out” the rest of the query string from the referrer string–dark pool, that. Learn more about the ramifications here after the jump.

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Posted in: Rants, Tech News

Cuil: Search That Sucks or: How NOT To Launch A Search Engine

Search engine Cuil (pronounce it however the hell you want to, but apparently they prefer “cool”) launched yesterday to a whole lot of “Google-killer” OMG vibes. And thus far, it really rather sucks.

The home page is Google-simplistic: Logo. Input box. Search button. Over-inflated index count. About link. Privacy link. On black. (Which is, I hear, the new black.) Start typing and a helpful suggest engine ala Google Suggest pops up. Cheers.

Try to search. One of several things will happen. Since we’re out of the “our servers are cooked” phase of things, chances are, you’ll get a results page. But if you were lucky to give it a shot early on, you’d just be flat presented with a “no results found” page. I searched “web application development” and “web development” and both came up with a 0-results page. This is apparently because the caching system isn’t able to retrieve results on the first request so instead places them in a queue. Except that Cuil doesn’t bother telling you that they’re still getting their shit together and that you’ll need to check back when they’ve actually pulled and cached those results. Not that you’d want to. Here’s why, after the jump.

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Posted in: Rants

Adobe Makes Dynamic Flash & Flex Files Indexable

Adobe announced today that they were delivering a special optimized Flash player for search robots, allowing search engines like Google and Yahoo to index not just a page’s non-Flash content, not just the content of the static data already indexed within a Flash movie, but the entire contents of each path taken throughout the Flash interface, entirely:

Adobe has provided Flash Player technology to Google and Yahoo! that allows their search spiders to navigate through a live SWF application as if they were virtual users. The Flash Player technology, optimized for search spiders, runs an SWF file similarly to how the file would run in Adobe Flash Player in the browser, yet it returns all of the text and links that occur at any state of the application back to the search spider, which then appears in search results to the end user.

This is an interesting approach that will really change the game for a lot of rich internet application providers. Anyone developing applications on the Flex platform knows that lacking the ability to make their dynamic content indexable is an IMMENSE drawback, especially when so much traffic is driven by search engines now. This changes the game. More on how, after the jump.

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Posted in: Cool Stuff

How to use dynamic keyword insertion in Google AdWords campaigns

As you may or may not know, when creating a Google Ad for insertion in their AdWords or AdSense network, (the ads that appear beneath search results or alongside 3rd party content, respectively) you can embed the relevant keyword that triggered your ad into the ad copy itself. This is pretty useful for creating a single ad template and applying it across multiple keywords while still maintaining relevance.

For example: If you were creating an ad for selling shoes, you might use shoes, nike, adidas, reebok as your keywords. The ad copy might read:
Buy cheap shoes!
But it’d be much more compelling if it parroted back my search term to me:
Buy cheap Nike shoes!

Learn how to make this happen in your campaigns, after the jump. Or learn about our AdWords Campaign Management services right now.

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Posted in: Development

Free Software and Open Source Alternatives to Save You Money

The development for open source software is strong and growing. Open source software is software in which the source code is publicly available for examination or contribution. If you talk to a typical person or business, you’ll usually find that their computers are all running Windows and have Microsoft Office installed. Some may even have more expensive software installed like the Adobe Creative Suite applications. By buying and using such high-priced software, it is easy to shell out two or three times as much money on software than on the computer itself. With many capable alternatives, there is a lot of money to be saved by utilizing free and open source software.

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Posted in: Cool Stuff, How To